A journey through the musical world of this well respected guitarist
Steve Hillage's career as a guitarist stretches from the sixties psychedelia of Khan through Gong, a successful association with Mike Oldfield's live work and a series of solo albums, to his latest computer-influenced LP 'For To Next'.
In the London offices of Virgin Records, Mark Jenkins talked to Steve about his recent work, thoughts on guitar style and production, and his varied career beginning with the early days of the Kevin Ayers Band.
"I toured France with Kevin Ayers, met up with the group Gong who I already knew, and decided to stay out there. Eventually Gong signed with Virgin and we came back to England, but Gong had been going quite a while by that time. They were formed by Daevid Allen after he left Soft Machine back in the 'psychedelic sixties' and I met them as a result of playing for a while with the drummer Pip Pyle, who eventually went to play for them on 'Canenbert Electrique'. That was released by a small independent company called Byg who went bust, just before the band signed to Virgin, and I think it was done quite quickly, although I wasn't in the group at the time.
The next album, 'Flying Teapot', was recorded at Virgin's Manor Studio. It was quite small in those days, a little funky 16-track equivalent to today's demo studios in some respects, but it had a good acoustic. Daevid thought of himself more as a singer than a guitarist, so I didn't have too much difficulty fitting in, in fact it worked really well. He also thinks of himself as a mythologist, his guitar style is very eccentric but very good. The original bassist Christian Tritsch switched to guitar and they got a new bass player, but Daevid didn't like Christian's playing much so they called me in.
This was largely Daevid Allen's work. I thought it was interesting, he saw it very much in a comic strip sense which is very big in France with 'Metal Hurlant' and other 'adult comics', but it didn't correspond to the English outlook so well. At times it got on my wick a little bit although I thought the basic ideas were very good. What influenced me to continue using them on my solo albums was the fact that it hadn't worked in England in a comic strip form, but it did have a chance of working in a really serious form. I thought I'd give it a go and see if it meant anything to people; the problem is that the imagery and forms of words that have collected around that sort of idea over the years need to be completely reformed. They have too many associations with the established church, old lady spiritualists and so on.
We did try to express the content of this mythology in the music as well as the words. All song, in my opinion, is a totality, not just a vocal over a distant backing. My approach to lyrics now is less concentration on making a statement and more concentration on choosing words that, by their overall colour, create a general impression that doesn't necessarily have any direct intellectual meaning. One of the problems with my earlier lyrics was that they gave the impression of a really good instrumental backing with something just superimposed over the top.
I'd already developed a playing technique, and Gong seemed to be the musical context and context of ideas which worked best with it. Effects, echo and such things were already part of that style. Apart from people like Hendrix who used it in a different way, I think I was about the first to start playing with louder repeats and similar effects. I started doing that about 1969 when I was in university, first with a Watkins Copicat and then with an Echoplex. Having played with echo for a long time I've realised it's a bit like a canon, the old choral pieces of the Middle Ages; a combination of that and creating a feeling of room and space.
As far as I'm concerned, playing with Gong equalled playing with Daevid Allen, who though a little unpredictable was a very amusing and stimulating guy to work with. When he suddenly decided he'd had enough of his creation in 1975, as far as I'm concerned Gong ceased to exist, so I decided to leave. That was after we recorded 'You'; I played a bit on 'Shamal' but I wasn't really in the group.
Most of the songs already existed before I joined Gong. I always regarded Gong as a period in my life which I would pass through, and then return to do my own stuff. It was a chaotic band, with people always coming and going. Tim Blake left just before I did, like Daevid he was a little unpredictable but I used to get on well with him. Between his synthesiser work and my guitar work I reckon we were the first Futurist band without a shadow of a doubt; although in those days there was none of the present-day imagery and fashion involved, and for us it was just like a continuation of psychedelic music. Because of the 'hippy' context the more modern 'futurist' element didn't really get promoted.
Fish Rising was a sort of marriage of what I had been doing before with the influence of having played in Gong. Most of the Gong people were on it; I'd already had doubts about being a lonely solo artist, in fact after leaving university I'd wanted to go into production, but my record contract had forced me into forming a band (Khan).
I was planning to try 'Hurdy-Gurdy Man' and 'All Too Much' as singles but I didn't plan to have a band or anything, and then all of a sudden we got in touch with Todd Rundgren.
I thought some of his ideas on 'A Wizard, A True Star' and 'Todd', and particularly on his solo synthesiser album 'Initiation', were very similar to mine. He offered to produce me, so we went to his studio in Los Angeles. It was quite a change being produced by somebody else and working with American musicians; Todd had just moved his studio out of New York and he was looking for some people to do what for him were fairly low-key productions to test out his studio. I don't think he ever thought he'd make money out of it as he did with Meatloaf, but the media thought it was great and it was decided I'd form a band and tour. Then after six months there was the great punk rock explosion and the papers decided they didn't like me any more!
Apart from Todd's band Utopia on the album we met up with Don Cherry, an old friend of Daevid Allen, and with Carla Bley who lived in Woodstock close to the studio. Don Cherry is a really important figure — I reckon he had an influence on Talking Heads because he was staying in their flat while their best album 'Remain in Light' was being made. He had an influence on 'L' certainly, playing trumpet, Tibetan bells and African instruments.
After that I changed my music, but it wasn't just to sell more records. I thought the sound of 'L' was a bit too heavy, in fact the snare and drum sound is quite modern for now but I wanted to do more funky, danceable stuff. It's quite amazing because that sort of music is fashionable now, with David Bowie's single and soon. I had the idea that if I did funky rhythms with very English-sounding vocals, and carried on with my lyric ideas about extended reality, it might be quite interesting. As it turned out 'Motivation Radio' was a big success in Europe whereas 'L' hadn't been, but didn't do too much in the UK.
Although the size of the studios wasn't increasing — both 'L' and 'Motivation' were done on 16-track — I had introduced some guitar synthesiser, and we used Malcolm Cecil's expanded Moog Series 3 synthesiser called 'T.O.N.T.O.' I'd become interested after hearing his album with Robert Margouleff 'Zero Time', which has some fantastic synthesised voices, and when we went down to see him in Santa Monica he was in the middle of an alpha rhythm biofeedback experiment with the synth.
Malcolm produced the album, partly at T.O.N.T.O. (which can't be moved about, the studio is part of the synthesiser and vice versa) and partly at some of the top-dollar American studios I'd wanted to work in like The Record Plant and the original Westlake. He's a very talented producer and uses the mixing desk like a huge synthesiser, which is a good way of looking at it; he stuck with the idea of modular synthesisers while Robert Margouleff (the other half of T.O.N.T.O.) went off to be a hot producer somewhere, so his eccentricity is to be admired!
I think 'Motivation Radio' was quite a daring thing to do as it was so different from 'L' which people had liked; it was more 'flying', on tracks like 'Saucer Surfing' and 'Searching for the Spark', although I thought the vocals were mixed a bit up-front, but it was a bit success in Europe as I said. I tried harder on the vocals — after all I was working with a guy who'd produced Stevie Wonder!
Green was a collection of songs I had at the same time as 'Motivation Radio', originally with the intention of doing a double album. I decided to divide all the songs up into the more 'beefy' ones which I associated with the colour red, and these went on 'Motivation Radio', and the 'spacey' ones for 'Green'. Having done a daring album I wanted to do one more as people expected, the 'hairy hippy' album, but to do an ecological spacey album like that at the height of punk was quite daring too!
The sounds of vocoders, synthesisers and guitar synths seemed to fit best with the overall conception of the record. I was using the EMS vocoder and the Roland GR500 guitar synth; it's a polyphonic design, unlike others like the ARP Avatar. I tried the prototype of the Avatar in the ARP factory in America. It was alright, but it was only a cut-down version of what they'd originally planned which was quite good but too expensive. I was put off guitar synthesisers at the time, but there are some really good ones now; the Roland GR300 is very responsive, whereas earlier you had to make fantastic efforts to avoid blips and glitches coming in, which tended to make playing a little less fun.
There was one technique I particularly enjoyed on the guitar synth. Because a fuzz unit turns your sound more or less into a square wave, I used to have a square wave oscillator fed into the fuzz box off the guitar synth which faded in as my guitar sound died away. You couldn't really hear the join, and so it produced infinitely long sustain if you wanted it. Nowadays I get that just by running two fuzz boxes, one into the other, with limiters and noise gates, and I've sold the guitar synth. I prefer to have just a very straight guitar noise or a very straight synth noise.
Apart from the guitar that comes with the Roland unit I was using a Gibson Les Paul, a Gibson SG and a Fender Stratocaster. The Roland guitar wasn't fantastic but you had to use it, which was another problem at the time. I had a 360 Systems guitar synth which gave a single control voltage from any guitar you liked, but it wasn't really good enough. John McLaughlin had a polyphonic one driving 6 Minimoogs, I had a single Oberheim voice. I've got the Zetaphon catalogue but I haven't used one, and I've looked at a lot of other guitar synths but they don't really appeal to me at the moment.
We had the EMS Vocoder on tracks like 'Underwater Vocoder Poem'; Tim Blake had been one of the first EMS demonstrators, and we got to know the people there and had all our gear modified by them, with buffering on the oscillators for tuning, on the patch bay, sync modifications and so on. As well as the EMS Synthi A with a sequencer we used an ARP 2600 original model, which Miquette Giraudy played. We've sold it now, which I regret because it was so versatile with its semi-patched system.
On 'Green' I make a lot of use of a very distinctive sound that goes back to the early days of Gong and even before. You plug the guitar into an echo unit, together with limiters and filters if you're into the production side, and then you get a special metal rod that you find in the flea-market in Paris — they're the handles of surgical instruments and they're sold by Arabs! — then you damp the strings with your left hand and stroke them, up and down, with the metal rod. With a knowledge of the Greek modes you can maintain open tuning, but do all kinds of transpositions which sound like you're changing chords, but in fact you're still in open tuning. If you know where the harmonics are on the guitar you can pick out the ones that resonate best. Generally it's double-tracked, with one playing chords and one just playing a melody on the top E string; sometimes you do a third track just picking out 'seagull' sounds. The gliss guitar sound is like the Olympic torch that gets passed from Gong to Here and Now to whoever comes in contact with us; I'd already sussed out how to do it at university with the Copicat, which was one of the reasons I was really interested in Gong when I first heard them.
In our more mystical moments we used to see the gliss guitar sound and the rhythm track as a balance of Yin and Yang; the rhythms are all short envelopes representing one polarity, the gliss guitar is a long sustained note representing the other polarity, and the 'glue' that binds them together is the melody.
The studio side of Live Herald was really the next album after Green, although I felt that the old pieces were quite different in stage performance too and so a live album was justified. Having heard a bit about how people generally do live albums — keeping the rhythm tracks and overdubbing the rest to cut out all the naff bits — I decided there was no way we could do that without losing all the magic of a live performance. Only on the slightest things, such as a guitar lead falling out, I matched the sound in the studio and dropped in to the track; but generally, matching the ambience of a gig and reproducing it as an overdub is very difficult. Basically in mixing the album we took the two ambience mics, one on each PA stack, did a lot of work with graphic equalisers, and made that the basis of the mix. We then added the close-miked stuff to add a bit of punch.
The four songs on the studio side of Live Herald form one piece, about communicating with some kind of inner force and ending with the very warm sensation of stillness and peace in 'Healing Feeling'. If that side went on, it would end up as 'Rainbow Dome Musick'.
The Festival of Mind, Body and Spirit is a bizarre event like a supermarket where you go in and everybody tries to sell you their wares. We wanted to do something completely non-aligned, an island of peace in the middle of this rather lunatic environment; it was possible to sit inside the geodesic dome, and I had two tape recorders each with both sides of the album run together on a 7½" spool, and when one finished I'd start the other and wind it back. So the music was going in a continuous loop, coming out of 8 speakers using the Haffler effect (a slight tilting of the phase to create synthesised quad from a stereo track) to create an ambisonic feel. At the centre of the dome was a sculpture with little drops of water and there are water sounds to go with it on the album.
The music wasn't composed in the conventional sense, but it was the first piece I recorded at home on a rented 8-track. Miquette Giraudy and myself came up with one initial idea each and added parts over the top. On side one for instance, there are two sequences running together, each through the same echo, but slightly out of time with each other so that they overlap in very long loops.
After that we decided to change over the equipment, and got an Oberheim OBX and a Sequential Circuits 800 sequencer, which is a bit slow but capable of producing multilayered sequences using a rhythm box with a pulse output; it's like a poor man's microcomposer!
After recording Open with the same equipment I had a bit of a break and started getting into computers. I enjoyed doing Open, and working with Curtis Robertson (bass) and Andy Anderson (drums); Jean-Phillipe Rykiel the French synthesist played some solos on the Arabic track 'Earthrise', and when that had been done Dave Stewart heard it and added a brilliant solo as well. But I got a little tired of always being in the role of getting somebody else to play my ideas. If I formed a group now I'd much prefer to be just one of the band, and as a producer I get a lot of artistic relish out of getting other people's ideas to come at me.
After doing quite a lot of production work, including Nash the Slash's 'Children of the Night', I started work on a new album and continued learning about computers. When I was first in America the first personal computers like KIM-1 were coming out, and eventually I bought an Apple. Now I'm investigating the musical possibilities, but I haven't found any music hardware that's fast enough to use yet.
I decided I'd rather work with drum machines than a group, and do really simple music, because what I'd done before in terms of musical complexity and lyrics was a mask that I was hiding something much more personal behind.
I used the LinnDrum but I think I've made it sound very live, particularly the snare sound which is very ambient, although what it's playing is very mechanical. I used a combination of digital reverb and delays, and also harmoniser to bend the snare drum downwards each time it occurs. I'm using a bit of SCI sequencer with a Minimoog, some bass guitar which is new for me because it allows more inflection than a sequencer, and I think a much better vocal sound.
I don't think I've got the world's greatest voice, but particularly on the first track I think the singing has now got as much intensity as the guitar playing. I use a few effects on the vocals, but what's important is, like the guitar playing, that it comes from inside you. You can't use effects as a mask; at the moment I really want to avoid that. Maybe for some people 'For To Next' is too bare, but that's what I wanted to do; something very simple and unmasked."
Interview by Mark Jenkins
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